Saturday, September 26, 2015

2. Lovecraft and Magick: An Interview with John L. Steadman

This is the second of a three part series featuring an interview with John L. Steadman, the author of H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition.  The book examines the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on contemporary occult and magickal practice.  In the previous section, Mr. Steadman described his early experiences with Lovecraft’s work and that author’s enduring importance to the field of weird fiction.  He also explained his unique perspective on communication with extraterrestrials.

If an authoritative version of the Necronomicon did exist, how would it be used in the 21st Century? Outside of occult ritual practice, would it be used for good or evil, or for some other end?

In a sense, all of the Necronomicons that we have today, even the ones that I label “spurious” in Chapter 3 of my book, can be understood as authentic, provided that they help the magickal practitioner accomplish the goals outlined previously.  A good maxim for magickal practice is: if it works, use it!

Thus, the emergence of yet another Necronomicon would do nothing more than give magickal practitioners in the 21st century another book to use, and those practitioners would likely use it much the same way that the current recensions are being used, for either good or evil, depending on the behavior and proclivities of the individual practitioners.

Is there any evidence that Lovecraft compared notes with his friend H.S. Whitehead? The latter made extensive use of material drawn from Vodou in his Tales of the Jumbee. Could there be a connection between some episodes in The Call of Cthulhu and Whitehead’s work?

Lovecraft first received a letter from H. S. Whitehead toward the end of 1930 and this marked the beginning of their correspondence.  However, it is difficult to determine whether or not the two men “compared notes” on their writing projects, since there are no surviving letters by Whitehead to Lovecraft, while Lovecraft’s own side of the correspondence has also been lost.

Whitehead was an Anglican priest who officiated at a rectory in Dunedin, Florida, where Lovecraft visited him on May 21, 1931.  During this visit, Lovecraft collaborated with Whitehead on the story “The Trap” (published in1932, in Strange Tales), which ended up being a relatively conventional horror story about a mirror that traps individuals into a dreamlike realm.  The collaboration, in my estimation, is not very effective; the story starts out as a typical Whitehead tale, light, urbane and worldly, and then it disharmoniously evolves into the kind of long, descriptive passages characteristic of Lovecraft’s work.  I think that Robert Chambers would have been a much better fit in terms of a collaborator for Whitehead than Lovecraft.

I’ve read Whitehead’s Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (1944) and Whitehead was, indeed, familiar with Vodou rites and practices, at least superficially, while Lovecraft was decidedly not.  But I must confess that I see little connection between Whitehead’s treatment of Vodou practices and Lovecraft’s depiction of New Orleans Vodou rites in his story “The Call of Cthulhu.”  Of course, both men are describing rites enacted in the woods in the dead of night and so, there are bound to be similarities: the reddish glare of bonfires; the animalistic cries and chants of the devotees; the beating of drums, the “animal fury and orgiastic license”, as it were; and the obligatory human sacrifice.  But this similarity is merely due to the use of the same subject matter on the part of both men.

References to the occult are also common in some of Lovecraft’s collaborations with other authors, for example Through the Gates of the Silver Key, which he co-wrote with E. Hoffman Price. Was Lovecraft experimenting with various ideas drawn from occult traditions, with the goal of incorporating them later on in his own work?

In Chapter 2 of my book, I examine in full detail what Lovecraft knew and how much he knew about western occultism.  Lovecraft wasn’t too interested in occult ideas; in this, he differs from Algernon Blackwood, who was a mystic and very much interested in all facets of occultism.

Certainly, Lovecraft wasn’t experimenting with occult ideas; he used books such as Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe merely to mine them for imagery or for sensationalistic d├ęcor that he could then incorporate into his own work.  Throughout his life, Lovecraft kept his mind firmly closed against any infiltration of occult ideologies. 

The case of E. Hoffman Price is an interesting one.  Price was so fascinated by “The Silver Key” that he wrote his own sequel, “The Lord of Illusion”—a rather pedestrian work, incidentally—and Lovecraft, out of friendship, agreed to help Price revise it.  As was Lovecraft’s habit, he did an extensive rewrite, but I don’t think that the end result can be described as a genuine collaboration.  I tend to agree with S. T. Joshi’s final assessment of this story, as given in his biography of Lovecraft, A Dreamer and a Visionary (2001): “Whereas “The Silver Key” is a poignant reflection of some of Lovecraft’s innermost sentiments and beliefs, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is nothing more than a fantastic adventure story with awkward and laboured mathematical and philosophical interludes.”

Besides H.S. Whitehead, other writers in Lovecraft’s circle, among them Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, made extensive use of occult material in their work. Was there something unique about that period between the two world wars that encouraged a turn towards the occult? How has this interest in the occult changed over the decades since?

Conventional wisdom insists that there is always a spike in occult interest during times of particular stress and anxiety in the world and I won’t dispute this.  Surely, the period between the two world wars was a particularly stressful time for many individuals.  But there are always going to be wars and there is always going to be stress because of this, and I think that there never has been or will be any time in history when interest in the occult will ever diminish.  Western culture has always been fascinated by magick, infatuated by magick, in fact, and magick has always maintained an overarching presence at all times, protecting and nurturing our humanity and our culture.  

You acknowledge in your book that Lovecraft was a materialist and an atheist, disinclined to believe in any existence of mind or soul outside of the body. And yet his fiction contains numerous references to both occult and conventional Christian imagery and ideas. Why do you suppose this is so? What attracted him to these notions?

It is important to understand that there is no Christian imagery or Christian ideology in Lovecraft’s work at all. Lovecraft’s colleague August Derleth mistakenly (deliberately?) tried to impose a Christian schemata on the Cthulhu Mythos while Lovecraft was still alive, and subsequently, Derleth aggressively tried to keep this imposition alive after Lovecraft’s death.  But in this goal, he was unsuccessful.

Certainly, there is a clear contrast between good and evil in Lovecraft’s work, irrespective of any religious overtones.  There is, also, a clear dichotomy between Lovecraft, the atheist and the materialist, and Lovecraft as a dreamer—as the prophet, in effect, of the Aeon of the Great Old Ones.  In fact, I would argue that this dichotomy was never resolved by Lovecraft at any time in his own personal and intellectual life, and that, furthermore, the great power and fascination inherent in Lovecraft’s work is fueled by this same dichotomy.
Among the occult traditions that you survey in your book, are there any that Lovecraft would have been especially interested in or comfortable with, given what is known of the author from his fiction and correspondence?

I’m certain that Lovecraft would have been intrigued by the metaphysical and philosophical speculations raised by the Chaos Magickians.  He would have been interested in the quantum elements inherent in the Vodou religion as well.  But Lovecraft, of course, wouldn’t have had any use for anything else associated with the occult systems that I examine in my book, any more than he had any use for the trappings and elements of Christianity.

To be continued…


Mr. Steadman and I differ somewhat—it may be just a matter of semantics—on the appearance and purpose of conventional Christian imagery in Lovecraft’s work.  There is no question that Lovecraft—a man of considerable integrity—remained true to his atheist and materialist principles all his life.  Nevertheless, in my view at least, Christian imagery is frequent in Lovecraft’s work, and the author uses it often very cleverly to amplify the horror or weirdness in some of his stories.  I catalog some of these instances in H.P. Lovecraft Goes to Church.  An example of how he effectively used one such image is described in The Lurking Fear and the Prodigal Son.


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